While primarily considered a health crisis, it’s hard not to see the far reaching economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Professor Julia Connell FIML, Executive MBA Director at University of Newcastle, it’s hard to talk about leadership issues for 2022 without referring to the last two years.
“Before the pandemic, governments equated economic growth to the national ‘good’,” she explains. “But there’s been a shift in focus to the safety and wellbeing of the community. That’s in recognition that, in the longer term, our growth prospects can only be improved if our communities are healthy.”
Leadership is something that has always been associated with change and making a difference. Leaders are at the forefront of that change and have had to adapt quickly and with agility in recent times. But, in the context of post-pandemic shifts, Connell proposes that leadership of the future is going to be associated with making a positive difference to employees’ lives as well as their organisations and society as a whole.
“This requires resilient leaders and resilient workforces who can face the challenges that 2022 is likely to bring, apart from those challenges we’ve already faced in 2020, and 2021.”
How does this translate in the workplace? Connell suggests six key issues leaders will need to consider in 2022 and beyond.
1. Hybrid working culture
Connell predicts that hybrid working is the way of the present and the future. But to make this successful, for both employees and the business, it requires leaders to consider their culture and how they communicate.
“Even before the pandemic, a Stanford study of 16,000 workers showed that productivity improves by 13% when employees work from home,” she explains. “And this was largely because people were not commuting. In addition, since the pandemic organisations have also been able to cut down on office space providing cost savings there as well.
“But to make all of this work you need to ensure that communication is more effective than ever. This is about opening up a genuine dialogue between employees and leaders.”
Where employees are working from home, in a hybrid context or more permanently, effective communication and an inclusive culture are key.
2. Mindful leadership
How, where and when we work has changed. The change has been quite profound and has challenged the relationships between leaders and employees. So much so that a global 2021 study by The Adecco Group found there is a deep disconnect in the workforce in a number of countries surveyed.
The Adecco report showed that leaders were failing on all of the measures associated with a strong, healthy culture rich in recognition, career guidance and attention to mental wellbeing. Not only that, but the reports were quite different between the senior leaders and their employees. Leaders reported they were doing a good job, whereas their employees didn’t agree.
Connell says that mindful leadership and building self-awareness in leaders is one way to bridge the chasm between employees and managers.
“The Adecco study reported that self-awareness is one of the most important skills that a leader can possess. It allows leaders to find and fill gaps in their performance and helps them to demonstrate empathy and trust among their teams.
“A lack of self-awareness translates into a toxic leadership culture that can undermine engagement, productivity and the ability of an organisation to retain top talent.”
Self-awareness is the foundation of mindful leadership. A self-aware leader is one that can understand the effect of their behaviour on themselves and also on others.
“In our Executive MBA Program we focus on mindful leadership,” explains Connell. “We aim to build self-awareness and resilience so that participants are effective not just when things are going well but also when they’re faced with conflict. Mindful leadership is the first course in the EMBA program so as to provide the necessary tools for effective leadership.”
3. Employee career prospects
There has been much hype around ‘The Great Resignation’ in the US and UK. Connell says that while we haven’t yet reached that stage in Australia, it’s predicted for 2022.
A study by Employment Hero suggests that as many as 48% of Australian employees plan to look for a new role within the next year. While 30% of those people state that is because they are seeking a pay rise, for 31% the reason is lack of career opportunities.
“Leaders really need to pay attention to the career prospects of their employees,” says Connell. “as they tend to be a strong contributor to whether employees stay or leave an organisation. For younger generations in particular, they want to work for companies that give them purpose and meaning in their work as well as opportunities to learn, grow and pursue new challenges.
“If you don’t consider employee career prospects, your top talent is likely to go elsewhere.”
4. Employee wellness
Intertwined with building a positive hybrid working culture is the need for leaders to prioritise employee wellbeing.
“A recent study from PWC asked nearly 2000 Australian workers what they wanted in terms of benefits and culture from their organisations. Wellbeing ranked second.
“Employee wellbeing is incredibly important,” says Connell. “Since the pandemic there has been a lot more focus on wellbeing and mental health support, with more government funding to address these aspects during these difficult times.”
Connell advocates for a proactive approach to mental health and wellbeing for employees.
“At the organisational level the PWC findings support dedicated wellbeing programmes and policies, with a focus on work-life balance. “Also, during meetings, leaders need to ‘check in’ with employees before jumping straight to the agenda.”
5. New technology
Research by KPMG shows that less than half of business leaders have more than a basic understanding of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the capabilities of new technologies.
Further, global research conducted by Deloitte with 1600 C-Suite executives found that many executives lack the confidence to harness the opportunities of new technologies.
Connell is well versed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution having researched business preparedness and co-edited two books on the topic. Connell reports that Australia was ranked 10th in a list of 25 countries on the Automation Readiness Index (ARI) created by the Economic Intelligence Unit and published in 2018. The ARI measured preparedness for new technologies according to a number of components relevant to a country’s labour markets, their innovation environment and education policies.
“Considering that the Fourth Industrial Revolution impacts all disciplines, economies and industries, there’s a need for greater understanding of how it might affect tasks and jobs,” says Connell. “There has been media reporting robots will take our jobs but in some cases routine tasks and jobs can be adapted through AI allowing employees to take on more strategic work.
“Leaders need to become more aware of digital skills and competencies as well as the possibilities of new technology. It’s not just about upskilling leaders but also employees. In Gartner’s HR Leaders 2020 Future of Work Survey only 20% of employees say they have the skills for the future and 70% say they’ve not completely mastered the skills they need for today either.”
It’s clear there’s a link to the challenge of career prospects and developing employees.
6. The bigger sustainability picture
Sustainability isn’t a new trend, but taking sustainability commitments and action to the next level is required in 2022 and beyond.
“Much of the focus of the last two years has been on COVID,” says Connell. “But we can’t ignore all the other things happening around us like climate change and the need for sustainability, because it’s interlinked.”
Connell suggests that sustainability needs to be embedded in how business is undertaken for a number of different reasons, as Connell explains.
“Leaders need to model and plan for the future with stakeholders. By considering the impact of their organisation’s environmental, social and governance strategies and activities they can improve the position of the organisation as a whole and the sense of purpose for employees”.
“It’s also about brand and the employee value proposition. There’s a need for organisations to do more in regard to sustainability and climate change. Organisations can make a real difference, and also help to attract employees who share the same values.”
From green champions within the business to corporate volunteering days, there is much leaders can do to build a culture of sustainability within the organisation.
What leaders can do to prepare
While we’re living in uncertain times, Connell suggests taking advantage of shifting social norms to build more compassionate workplaces into the future.
“Leaders really can’t go past self-awareness, empathy and wellbeing as the cornerstone of leadership culture. Resilient leaders, mindfulness and effective communication are now more important than ever as we continue hybrid working and increase awareness of new technologies and capabilities.”
Professor Julia Connell FIML is currently Executive MBA Director, Newcastle Business School, University of Newcastle. She has published numerous refereed journal articles/book chapters, co-edited 9 books and 17 special issue journal volumes – the latest being COVID-19 Crisis, Work and Employment: Policy and Research Trends for the Journal of Labour and Industry.